On Family Sunday we heard three perspectives of family from members of our congregation. Benjamin Akins shared his journey of finding La Verne Church of the Brethren during Family Sunday. He shares his perspective after coming from a more conservative, evangelical background:
I first heard of the La Verne Church of Brethren while I was attending Bonita High School. In fact, I was classmates with a couple of you here today, or perhaps your children. I once asked a classmate what this church was about and he explained that it was the kind of place that is inclusive and appreciative of all kinds of peoples and religions.
For some reason, I bristled at that.
You see, I grew up as a Pentecostal, charismatic evangelical. While it’s certainly not the case for everyone in that tradition, I grew up with a sense of disconnect from people of other traditions. I saw everyone who wasn’t a witnessing, bible thumping, evangelical as a sinner who would eventually go to hell, and I was awaiting my reward in paradise. I was told, ‘Live in the world but not of the world.’ ‘Do not let thyself be unevenly yoked,’ even though I never understood what eggs had to do with people I hung out with. These were the messages I was taught as a boy who wasn’t wise enough to understand them. And they are, of course, very wise messages. We shouldn’t let ourselves be tainted by the evils of the world. Pride, bigotry, greed, etc. Nor should we surround ourselves with people who may enable our relationship with these evils. But it took me a long time to realize that who someone loves and the god that person worships, or lack thereof, is not a measure of their character.
I started to have this realization at a very turbulent time in my life and it was around this time that I started attending this church. Church and family had been woven together for me and I had been attending church with my parents since I was born. But I had never really thought of church as family.
On the day I first attended La Verne Church of the Brethren, I was supposed to meet my mother and father at their church. To be honest, being charismatic evangelical is exhausting to me. I grew tired of having to perform my faith. Oh, I better lift my hands during worship because that’s what everyone else is doing! Oh! I better learn how to pray fervently so that God knows I really mean it. I was tired.
As I laid in bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to muster the energy to get ready and head to church, I just thought, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. So, I decided to find a church myself. The first place that popped up in my head was the La Verne Church of the Brethren. It was close, had a nice campus, and the service started late enough that I could be on time; I think that was the clincher.
The sermon that day was one of Pastor Susan’s series, Is That Really In the Bible? And the story was about the woman who welcomed a fleeing king into her tent and drove a stake through his skull in the night. Susan told the story with such a soothing voice and I thought, “This is a cool place.” I had missed the singing from hymnals, something I was accustomed to as a boy in a 90’s, something that was replaced by an image of Rock & Roll Jesus. I missed the quiet reverence that could be found in a place of worship. Suddenly I found a place where I could find peace in my heart where it was so desperately needed. I felt welcomed like a parent welcoming home their child after being gone for so long.
I started coming here every week because I found peace and comfort from the words of our former pastor Janet. I found encouragement and a call to action from Susan. Later on, I found the joyous friendship of Dawna. I still remember Shawn and Tom inviting me to their table at a church luncheon and feeling so instantly welcomed. At a time when I finally understood how important empathy and compassion are, two things I never really saw growing up. I had this place to show me what those words mean. I was forever grateful that I could bare my soul to Janet and she would accept me like a mother who knows the true meaning of grace.
We live peacefully, simply, together. I fell in love with those words. Susan taught me that peace is never passive. To turn one’s cheek and to say, “You struck me as a lesser, now strike me as an equal,” is deeply empowering and it showed me pacifism comes from a place of strength. I started looking for simplicity in my own life. The words of the apostle James then stood out so clearly to me. Pure and simple religion is this: to take care of the orphan and widow and to not let oneself be tainted by the evils of world. Here, I was inspired to live out my faith by taking care of others. After all, my god is not only my god. The Bible isn’t just speaking to me. My religion is not just about my relationship with my creator; it’s about my relationship with all creation. Because we are a family together. Not just those here in the church. We are all on this earth as one family. And no more, do I look at others with the disconnected feeling that they are a sinner and I am awaiting paradise. They are my family. All of you.